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Underground fugue, p.16

Underground Fugue, page 16


Underground Fugue

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  “It’s not?”

  “I’m not the one who’s manipulating you.”

  His son’s face darkens. “Oh yeah, right, sorry. Just—How much has she been drinking, Amir? Tell her she’s full of shit, Amir. How much longer are you staying over there, Amir? When are you coming back, Amir?”

  “When you live with someone, it’s common courtesy to let them know when you’ll be around.”

  “Right, then. Whatever. I won’t be around.”

  The door slams so hard the floorboards shake. There is a stomping on the stairs, and then, upstairs, the bedroom door slams as well.


  Tuesday morning and Zofia’s back. She adjusts the oxygen apparatus, reviews the medications. Her smooth moon-face, her capable hands, are a relief.

  It is the twenty-first of June, the summer solstice. They watch the midsummer celebrations on TV: Bonfires at Land’s End. A sunrise gathering at Stonehenge. The sun rises above the great stone monoliths. The sky is silver, the sun a platinum disc. There were those who said that at midsummer, the membrane that separates this world from the next grows porous, frayed. It is easy for a soul to slip away.

  “You missed all the excitement,” Esther says to Zofia. “I came this close to calling an ambulance the other night.” She pinches together her forefinger and thumb to demonstrate.

  “We will arrange for a Marie Curie nurse to come and stay at night,” Zofia says. “You have nothing to worry. It will be good—give you a break.”

  Esther nods, obedient as a child. She likes the British way Zofia pronounces the name, with flat vowels and the accent on the first syllable: Marry Curey. It seems a different person from the very French “Madame Curie” she’d read about in a children’s biography—a fierce iron-haired creature, dressed in black, holding up a radioactive test tube. These hospice nurses wore light blue uniforms with daffodil pins in the lapels.

  Together she and Zofia bathe her mother, change the sheets, settle her back in bed. Her mother is calmer now, sedated, her eyes puffy and vague. She parts her dry lips as if she’s about to speak, but all that comes out is a whispery groan.

  “What’s that?” Esther says, but her mother does not respond.

  She is speaking another language, maybe. She has so many stored inside her, vestigial, disused: English, German, Czech, Polish, some Russian, a little French. Or perhaps she is speaking in tongues.

  “The other day she kept saying she wanted to go home,” Esther tells Zofia. “I don’t think she even knows where she is half the time. She told me she could see my father, too, sitting over there in the corner of the room.”

  “It is quite normal,” Zofia says.

  Normal? How strange. Esther leans across the bed and kisses her mother’s papery cheek, strokes her milkweed hair. People slipped away, no matter what you did. A quick rap on a taxi window, a screen door’s screech and slam, and they were gone.

  Again—a muted whisper.

  “Did you catch that?” she asks Zofia, but Zofia shakes her head.

  Esther takes her mother’s hand and strokes the knotted knuckles, the twisted veins, the yellowed paper skin. “I love you too,” she whispers back, although she has no idea if that is what her mother meant at all.


  The telephone rings later in the afternoon. It’s Gil. They haven’t talked in weeks. The words she has laid out so carefully in her letter—the letter still unfinished, tucked inside a book on top of her mother’s desk—have flown away. Useless words. She can hear her own breath, amplified in the receiver. Breath reconstituted as bits of binary code, traveling at the speed of light.

  “I just wanted to see how things are going,” he says.

  “She won’t last much longer, according to the nurse.” She twines the phone cord around her wrist.

  “She’s a fighter.”


  The familiarity of Gil’s voice annoys her: the slightly overlong pauses, the gruff uh-huhs. The lawyerly way he finally clears his throat and says, “So are you coming back?”

  “Don’t start, Gil.” She twists the phone cord tight. “Not now.”

  “I need to know.”

  “Really? Do you? My mother is dying, for Christ’s sake.”

  “Esther, please.”

  “What do you want me to say?”

  “It’s a very simple question.”

  “No, it’s not.” She feels as if she should be crying, but instead everything inside her has gone tight.

  He clears his throat again. “I’m not going to beg.”

  “I know.”

  A pause. “This is it, Esther. Do you understand? I hope you’ve thought this over carefully.”

  She says nothing. She twists the phone cord around her wrist the other way. “I’m sorry,” she says finally. “I really am.”

  His voice is tight. “Look, you take care of yourself, all right?”

  And beneath the strain and gruffness in his voice there is the sound of words shattering into shards of light, and she understands that she has been released.


  Jane, the Marie Curie nurse, is a godsend. She wears her long hair in a high twist. Bangs frame a warm, soft face. She has two grown children, she tells Esther, and two huge Newfoundlands that she dotes on like the grandchildren her sons (one gay, the other “a ladies’ man”) seem unlikely to produce. She is to arrive at nine each evening and stay all night. Esther would like to hug her. Actually, Esther would like to throw her arms around Jane’s legs and kiss her feet.

  Esther feels cheered up enough to make a carrot-ginger soup and bake a few baguettes. She gives one loaf to Jane, freezes the rest. Her mother takes only a few spoons of applesauce or ice cream these days. The metabolism slows, the nurses have assured her. She’s getting all she needs.

  In a burst of newfound energy, Esther dusts the sitting room, washes the bathroom floors, sweeps the stairs. Then she begins the work of emptying out drawers and filling bags with her mother’s clothes, coats and sweaters, shoes. There is so much stuff. What to get rid of? What to keep? Everything seems saturated with nostalgia: the mantel clock, the enameled colander hanging on its kitchen hook, the afghan folded over the back of the sofa, the porcelain figurines and cups, the books. But what exactly is she nostalgic for? It’s hard to say.

  She sorts through her mother’s jewelry, setting aside a strand of Polish amber to give to Zofia, a pretty Venetian glass bead bracelet for Jane. She flips through the recipe cards she finds stuffed into a kitchen drawer. Some are in German: Lammrippchen, Leberknödel, Rigó Jancsi. A few are annotated with spidery handwritten comments. On a strawberry shortcake: Made for Noah, London, June 1993—lovely! On a recipe for chocolate mousse: Keep cool but do not freeze!

  At the back of the desk she finds an old file folder of legal documents pertaining to her father. Inquiries and summonses, indictments, appeals. Tax evasion. Misappropriation of funds. The worm of suspicion swivels its ugly head. What was the truth? There was no way of knowing. She slips the file back.

  From another drawer, she pulls out a stack of photographs. Snapshots from the sixties, by the look of her mother’s bob and sleeveless sheath. There’s one of her parents in formal dress, picnicking on what looks like the great lawn at Glyndebourne, holding up champagne flutes. There’s one of her father sitting on a chilly-looking beach. He is thin legged, hairy chested, wearing a floppy hat. Another photograph—older, smaller, black and white with deckled edges—shows an angular young man in a heavy overcoat, gripping the handlebars of a bicycle. On the back, somebody has inked Mährisch Ostrau 1938. It’s not her father. Who then? She sighs and puts the photos back.

  The packet of letters is tucked at the back of the same drawer, bound with a corroded rubber band. The envelopes are made out to an address in Kraków, Poland. They are unstamped, never mailed. She unfolds the thin sheets. She recognizes her mother’s familiar slanting cursive. Mein lieber Hugo, the salutation reads. Hugo, her brother, lost in the war.

sp; It is strange, the way these traces of the past resurface, like the vestiges of an underpainting beneath a well-known oil, or ancient roads revealed in photographs taken from the air. She looks down at the sixty-year-old letters in her hand. Too bad her German stinks.


  She calls Javad from her bedroom, late. “Hey,” she says.

  His voice is low and rough. Perhaps he’d been asleep. Something has shifted between them since the other night. Everything has changed, but not in the way she’d feared. Something has loosened, opened up.

  She tells him about her mother’s disorientation and bad dreams. He tells her about his quarrel with Amir. He hasn’t heard from him all week.

  She undresses as they talk. In the mirror above her chest of drawers, she considers the sharp ridgeline of her clavicle, the looser skin along her neck. Her skin is freckled and pale. She’s lost weight.

  “Maybe he just needs a little space,” she says, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “He’ll come around, I’m sure.”

  Would Noah, too, have been a sullen stranger at nineteen? Had she been that way as well? The summer after her first year in college, she’d stayed on in the city, working a catering job, subletting an apartment with a bunch of friends. Her mother had already moved back to London by then. Did she mind that Esther didn’t join her? Esther has no memories of her mother from that summer, as if she didn’t even exist.

  She slides one arm out of her blouse, switches the phone to her other hand, then slides the other arm out, letting the blouse drop onto the floor. She reaches back and unhooks her bra and shakes it off as well. Her nipples tighten, bare.

  “All I get from him are evasive answers,” Javad says.

  In the mirror—her throat, shoulders, ribcage, breasts. The skin along her abdomen is still faintly puckered from pregnancy long ago. Oh, her middle-aged body. A little saggy, but not bad still.

  She says, “Maybe he’s got a girlfriend.”

  “Not bloody likely. Half the time he looks as if he just climbed out from under a rock!”

  “Maybe girls like scruffy. You don’t know.”

  “Maybe you’re right.”

  But there are a lot of things he doesn’t know about his son, she thinks. He doesn’t know about him sneaking in that first cold April night. He doesn’t know about Finsbury Park. She thinks of the boy’s eyes, so like an icon’s. She remembers that complicit look.

  “It will all work out,” she says. “Just give him time.”

  She slides her nightgown over her head, holding out the phone as she wiggles her hands through the arm holes. When she brings it back to her ear, Javad is saying something about the adolescent brain. Hormones, the limbic system, the frontal lobe, judgment. Recklessness and risk.

  She wonders if he’ll ask her to come over. He is being careful with her now, she thinks. Who can blame him? She’s one big complication: her mother is dying, her son is dead. And now that Jane is here, if he asks, will she say yes?

  She gets into bed. The sheets are cold against her skin. Oh, her body. How long has it been since anyone touched her besides Gil? How long since even him?

  From the first, she and Gil had turned away from each other in their grief. At night, he went to bed without her, and she lay alone in Noah’s room, searching for consolation in the glow-in-the-dark stars. They sidled past each other in the kitchen, in the hall. They blamed each other. They blamed themselves. Friends asked how they were doing. Get counseling, everybody said.

  And they did. They tried. They sat side by side on leather armchairs in the therapist’s Upper East Side consulting room. The therapist crossed his legs, revealing a hairy band of skin between his trousers and his socks. There was a framed reproduction of Kandinsky’s color study hanging above the therapist’s head, colorful concentric circles like a target at a shooting range. Gil spoke formally, as if he were in court. Esther just sat there, feeling nothing, oblivious to the tears slipping down her cheeks.

  The therapist handed her a box of Kleenex. “It must be intolerable, the prospect of losing another person that you love,” he suggested.

  Esther shook her head. What was he talking about? That wasn’t it at all.

  On the afternoon of their last session, she stood by Gil in the November drizzle at the corner of Seventh-Eighth and Madison, waiting for a cab. “I’m sorry,” she said. He put his arms around her and kissed her. “I’m sorry too,” he said. His eyes were shiny and hard. Any passerby would have thought they were in love. But she knew it was the end. She couldn’t feel anything at all.


  After she hangs up, she lies in bed, unable to sleep. She moves her hand down to touch herself, but she is dry. She has hardened. She has turned to stone. There is a disease that causes the skin to thicken with collagen into a scabrous hide that stretches taut across the joints and bones, the face becoming a keloid mask. Eventually, the internal organs too grow rigid, stiff. She pictures the inside of her body as a cave, glittering with pyrite and mica veins: the liver obsidian, pink marble lungs, a jasper spleen, a granite heart. Ossified. That’s how she feels.

  She should just get up and go next door, she thinks, but she’s too old for recklessness. You were reckless when you were young because you didn’t know better. You just went for it without thinking. Opened yourself up, unzipped your skin.

  Just once, she’d hooked up with a stranger. Reckless, yes. She was a few years out of college, on the shuttle, flying back from Boston to LaGuardia on the last flight of the night. Boarding, she’d caught his eye as he passed her going down the aisle. He was very good looking, with thick hair and gray eyes and finely cut features—pretty, almost, as a girl. She felt his good looks like a punch, a shock of raw desire. He took a seat a couple of rows behind her. She swiveled around, pretending to be looking for someone else, caught his eye, turned back. After a little while, she turned around again.

  He came up to her after they landed, inside the terminal, alongside the long rack of free magazines. He wore a navy blazer, jeans, expensive-looking leather shoes. He might have been a banker or an attorney. She smiled at him and he smiled back. He was so good looking. She asked him if he’d like to share a cab into the city. He said sure.

  They pushed through the terminal doors to the taxi rank. This was how girls ended up dismembered, she thought—strangled, raped, and dumped behind a rock in Central Park and left for dead. She was not reckless. She triple-locked her apartment door, didn’t do drugs or bungee jump or even ski. One by one, the yellow cabs pulled up and sped away. He opened the cab door for her and she slid across the lumpy seat. He climbed in after her and leaned toward the Plexiglas partition and told the driver, Ninety-Sixth and Third, and she nodded, even though she lived nowhere near there. Not an axe murderer, she told herself. Although of course there was no way to tell. The taxi veered around a bend. Their legs and shoulders touched.

  His building was a brand-new high rise on the northern edge of Yorkville, a steel and glass cylinder that rose above the squat prewar apartment buildings and dingy ground-floor storefronts and the projects. His high-floor windows faced east. Through the darkness, she could see the East River splitting around the tip of Randall’s Island, the Triborough’s lit-up span, the twinkling expanse of Queens. It felt as if they were still on the plane. He put his arms around her and pulled her to him. She opened her lips to his.

  After it was over, he apologized. What for? She ran a finger along his forearm. The hair was gold and fine. The way he said it—Are you okay? As if he thought he’d hurt her. But he was no axe murderer, and she wasn’t hurt in the least. The whole thing had been her doing from the start.

  But she was no longer flying. Whatever it was that she had wanted, it wasn’t here in the apartment on Ninety-Sixth Street. It was like that time in sixth grade when she’d nicked—the word “clipped” coomes back to her, long-lost Boston slang—a Chap Stick from the drugstore on a dare. It felt hot, there in the pocket of her sweatshirt, as if it might burn a hole. She
d dropped it in a dumpster on the way home.

  He was beautiful, naked beside her like a golden idol. She felt a wash of guilt, or shame. She got out of bed and dressed.

  Now she wonders why she fled. What did it matter, any of it, in the end? There was such beauty in the way two bodies touched.


  A few nights later, the doorbell rings. Jane is already there—it’s late.

  “Enough with the bloody phone,” Javad says. He has on his leather jacket, his lips curved in a smile. “Come on. Come for a walk with me instead.”

  She pulls on a cardigan, gives the Marie Curie nurse her phone number, makes sure the ringer on her mobile is turned up loud. “I won’t be long,” she promises.

  “Don’t you worry about a thing,” says Jane.

  It’s a chilly evening, damp. The sky is indigo, smudged with darker clouds. They wander up and down the streets of South Hampstead—Swiss Cottage, Belsize Park. Curving streets of redbrick terraces, whitewashed mansion blocks, flowering trees and tidy hedges, the occasional incongruous modern block.

  It’s the Fourth of July, she realizes. An ordinary Monday here. Back home, there would be fireworks, crowds gathering in the streets, bottle rockets shooting off, children twirling sparklers in the air. In the year of the millennium, they’d watched the fireworks display from the rooftop of their building. Sprays and wheels of color shot up over the Hudson beyond the rooftops to the west. Rat-a-tat pops and thudding booms. Esther’s mother hated fireworks. She always said that they reminded her of the Blitz.

  “What do you hear from Amir?” she asks.

  “Not a word.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  He turns up his palms. “What can I do?”

  They pass a little playground—a rocking duck on a spring base, a sandbox, metal swings, a slide. She remembers pushing Noah, for hours it seemed, on the swings. Her palm against his little spine, touching and releasing. Again, again, he said. Up he flew and back.

  Javad gives her a sideways look. “Will you be putting the house on the market, then?”

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